With the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001 the question of reconstituting a national government in Kabul became a priority. But, after more than 20 years of warfare, some argued that this process was doomed to failure. Their assumption was that ethnic groups in Afghanistan would naturally use their bases of regional power to break up any unitary Afghan state. They predicted that Afghanistan would soon divide along ethnic lines, either in the form of new independent mini-states or by combining with their co-ethnic neighbors (Kinzer 2001). This argument had particular resonance because the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the genocidal ethnic strife in Central Africa were fresh on the minds of the international community. And in the former Yugoslavia there seemed no end to the chain of demands for ever-smaller ethnic states or the willingness of small regional ethnic groups to sabotage any plans that called for multi-ethnic states. Since a large number of the expatriates arriving to assist in Afghanistan’s reconstruction had experience in the Balkans, they were particularly attuned to such potential problems. There was also a general belief that ethnic divisions were more intractable than other divisions (political, religious, class, geographic, etc.) that might impede the re-creation of a centralized state. No one, however, had informed the Afghans of this inevitability. It was true that the war had empowered regional ethnic groups in Afghanistan to an extent not seen since Amir Abdur Rahman had crushed their autonomy at the end of the nineteenth century. It was also true that ethnic lines had become sharper during the 25 years of war. But it was striking that not a single Afghan political or military leader had ever threatened to secede from Afghanistan to form an independent state or expressed any interest in joining with co-ethnic neighboring states, not even as a negotiating tactic. Instead, even the very powerful regional warlords cooperated in the loya jirga that created the provisional Afghan central government, these military leaders, and the more democratically selected delegates, all asserted that some kind of working central government was an absolute necessity for a country of which they all (regardless of ethnic divisions and old grudges) saw themselves a part. What explains the lack of movement toward ethnic disintegration in a country where all the elements for such a division are present? The answer lies both in the nature of ethnicity in Central Asia and the pragmatic outlook of Afghan leaders who, like poker players at a card game, are
more interested in dividing the pot than they are in dividing the table at which they sit.